Soon we will turn our attention to actual baseball, images of familiar players working out, scattered exhibition games, and “Opening Day No Really This Time” on July 24th — assuming the whole shabang isn’t shut down before it gets off the ground.
But as players and coaches, sans fans or mascots, descend upon the Coliseum today for first workouts and long-distance pleasantries, we stand at the foot of a 60-game season to be followed, virus willing, by one normal season before the current CBA expires.
The idea of another work stoppage — be it at the end of 2021 before the post-season that brings owners their big money or at the start of 2022 when owners could lock players out absent a CBA — seems unthinkable and just bad for baseball in general. But so did a 2-month squabble that delayed an attempt at a 2020 season past the “curve flattening” portion of the pandemic and into new daily records in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, with no improvement in sight.
Here is the problem the MLBPA faces going forward: they have so much more to lose from another work stoppage than the owners do. If you’re an owner, your big money is made in the rising value of the franchise from the day you buy it to the day you sell it. Sure you hope to make a few million each year on the product itself, but you are also making money in the off-season just by existing — much in the way that our money in the bank makes a little bit of its own money while it is being left alone.
So while in a good year, owners profit a bit more when there are games than when there aren’t, their fortunes are tied into owning a valuable commodity and they can afford a strike or lockout so long as fans don’t abandon the sport entirely (which should, frankly, be owners’ biggest concern but it isn’t).
Now to the essential problem: if you’re a typical MLB player, two lost (or partially lost) seasons becomes a huge deal. This becomes more evident when you look at what a typical MLB player’s trajectory really is.
While it’s true that even rookies earn about 10x what we mere mortals earn, the reality is that most players are not “filthy rich”. Most players carve out a career that spans about 5 seasons, three of which are pre-arbitration, and don’t have jobs well into their 60s. Some have college degrees and/or non-baseball skills, but many do not.
You hear a lot about the “average MLB salary” being a rather lofty $4.38M but that average is heavily skewed by the rare $20-$30M/year deals handed out to select superstars. In fact, the median MLB salary is about $1.5M — still more than you or I bring in, but now annual numbers even you and I could earn by working a steady job for 20 years.
More to the point, though, most MLB players rely on a tight window of just a few years to make all those earnings. If you are a rookie, or a second year player, in MLB right now, you are poised to earn $198,000 and change and your future is very uncertain. You are hoping to stick around long enough to make millions but there is also a decent chance that your career earnings could wind up being something like “$198K, $535K, and that’s it”. Plenty of MLB players fizzle out after a couple seasons.
Add to that the fact that 2020 stats are going to be mostly thrown out the window when it comes to evaluating players. Did you “breakout” or did you just benefit from rusty pitchers and rustier hitters around you? Did you have a great season or did you just have a good 2 months like a lot of bad players have?
If you’re a typical MLB player, looking at a 4-5 window to carve out your one and only career, and you have already lost most of one season, the specter of losing “2 out of 3” becomes pretty ghastly. Are you a soldier, “taking one for the team” so that future MLB players can have better terms for the contracts they negotiate? At the expense of that one shot at your own career?
Granted I’ve never earned so much as $198K in a single year, certainly not $535K, but I can also work into my 40s, 50s, 60s, and my windows of opportunity don’t open and close in a matter of a few years. If you have been working all your young life towards MLB, through college and the minor leagues, with a “now or never” chance at a big league career, the thought of losing seasons in 2020 and 2022 are devastating.
For the owners? Their investment will be rising in value regardless, and for them no clocks are ticking. That gives them leverage and they know it. How does MLBPA navigate this truth and still hold its ground against an ownership group that has proven itself to be motivated solely by greed, indifferent to fairness or the basic considerations of players or fans?
Ironically, work stoppages — whether due to pandemics or labor strife — are bad for business, and we have seen that it can take years to recoup the losses of fan interest and engagement. That is bad for both sides, but in their quest to out-hate each other neither side seems to fully grasp or appreciate this truth.
And so the animosity grows, the two sides become more and more resolved to punish each other, and the expiring CBA becomes the next weapon each side plans to wield against the other. Only one side appears to have much more to lose, and I’m not sure what they are going to do about that.